My son and I are locked in a stand-off over a drink bottle. He is refusing to drink from a pink one because “pink is for girls”. I am refusing to change it.
“Of course pink isn’t just for girls,” I tell him. “It’s just a colour, like red or blue or green.”
Both he and I know this isn’t strictly true. We know that some colours, like some toys, jobs and even human characteristics, have gender. Pink, blue; doll, tractor; nurse, soldier; pretty, strong: we know instinctively which are boy words and girl words. I have tried to teach him the opposite but four years on the planet means that he knows it anyway. And after such knowledge, what forgiveness?
Because it turns out that the gender gap could be a problem of our making. A recent BBC documentary, No More Boys and Girls, worked on the premise that, because there is no difference in the brains of seven-year-old boys and girls, the difference in their attitudes and aptitudes must come from society.
Watching Dr Javid Abdelmoneim try to make Year 3 children gender-neutral was fascinating, but what struck me most (second only to the revelation that the children don’t wear shoes in class) was the gap in self-confidence. At only 7, the girls were underestimating their abilities across the board, while both boys and girls viewed boys as stronger and more dominant.
Learned, not innate
This led to behaviour that most teachers would recognise: the girl who burst into tears of joy when she achieved more than she thought she could and the boy who flew into a rage when he fell short of his expectations. It’s a reaction I’ve seen countless times. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure it’s learned, not innate. You only have to look at girls in Foundation and Year 1, leaping up to tell you things, fearless in taking risks, and see how much some of them have retreated by upper key stage 2. Teachers who have taught in both mixed and single-sex schools tell me it’s noticeable how much happier girls are to put their heads above the parapet in lessons when there are no boys around.
What’s worrying is the direction in which such behaviour patterns might lead you. In this age of equality, there is still a sizeable gender pay gap, while the leading cause of death for British men under 50 is suicide. So, clearly, anything we can do in school to redress the balance is a good thing, and I am pleased to report that I have removed some princess books from the book corner and installed extra images of female scientists on the science board.
But I’m afraid that a school culture of equality might only take us so far, for coming in the other direction is a tsunami of counter-narrative in which everything from advertising to toys, films and even food packaging is ramming home the message that boys are strong, active and tough while girls are sensitive, pretty and essentially passive.
But if we can’t control society, we can control our classrooms. After all, there are many reasons why children may lack self-confidence, but simply being a girl should never be one of them.
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands